Jonathan Rowson writes, “I have a friend who never reads or watches anything recommended by only one person, but acts almost immediately on the advice of two or more. He enjoys looking out for such signals and waits for the world to reveal to him what he should do. He says he appreciates books and films all the more when he senses that they are meant for him, and while I am charmed by his methodology, I fear for his sanity. I thought of him when I started watching The Wire
on DVD in 2011. (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0306414/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1) The series is a gritty and sometimes harrowing take on the urban drug scene in Baltimore, USA, and is awash with swearing and violence. From that kind of description, I found it hard to imagine I could like it, yet with so many trusted friends telling me I would, I relented, and was pleasantly surprised.”
The opening theme music for HBO’s series The Wire is a song written by Tom Waits titled “Way Down in the Hole” (1987). Each year, during the series’ five-season run, the producers selected or solicited a different version of the song. As a series, The Wire is often interpreted as lacking a space for representations of Black spirituality. Each of the five seasons features complex institutional characterizations and explorations of the Street, the Port, the Law, the Hall (i.e., politics), the School, and/or the Paper (i.e., media). Through these institutional characters and the individual characters that inhabit, construct, and confront them, The Wire depicts urban America, writ large across the canvas of cultural and existential identity. For all of its institutional complexity, The Wire then serially marginalizes Black spirituality in favor of realism, naturalism, and some may argue, nihilism.1 “Way Down in the Hole” is a paratextual narrative that embodies this marginalization and creates a potential space for viewers (and listeners) of the show, one that frames each episode and the entire run, through literary and spiritual Black musical contexts. The multiple versions of “Way Down in the Hole” ultimately function as a marginalized repository for the literary and spiritual narratives that are connected to the series—narratives that become legible via intertextual analyses and in turn render visible The Wire’s least visible entities: Black spirituality and the Black Church.2 (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137305251_7)
Something similar happened to me some years after Jonathan decided to invest the time watching what has come to be on everyone’s short list of the best series to grace a screen. For many years I considered the best television series of the genre commonly known as ‘Cops and Robbers’, to be Homicide: Life on the Street
The Wire rivaled Homicide and may have even superseded it. Ironically, both series are set in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
“The characters are raw and compelling and their dialect electrically authentic. I remember being irritated to find that audiences in America watched some films set in Scotland, like Trainspotting, with English subtitles, but the street language of The Wire is also so far from conventional English that I initially had to do the same. Still, in an early episode I knew I had made a good decision to watch when I saw one young drug dealer – D’Angelo – teach two others – Bodie and Wallace – how to play chess.
“Ya’ll can’t be playing checkers on no chessboard yo!” – D’Angelo Barksdale
this particular scene is an extraordinary work of art; a beguiling mixture of social commentary, existential despair, youthful hope and dark humour.”
“D’Angelo describes the king as ‘the kingpin’ and says that the aim of the game is to protect your own king and get the king of the other side. He says the king can move one square in any direction but that he doesn’t have ‘hustle’.”
“There are many worlds within that word: hustle. As a noun and a verb, hustle hints at a relationship between a setting and a plot, a juxtaposition that defines the moral ambiguity of characters in The Wire. Describing the king’s lack of hustle is a succinct way to say that the king is rarely out on the streets; in professional terms he does not have to solicit clients. The expression also means the king does not directly display force, he’s not typically aggressive, he’s not illicit, not in a hurry, but equally he doesn’t have what you might need to get things done. ‘Hustle’ is sometimes admirable, not least when it seems necessary; the word conveys the spirit of entrepreneurial transgression needed to survive.”
may not have hustle, but nonetheless he survives for longer than the other pieces by definition. Checkmate – from the Persian Shah Mat – literally means the king is dead. ‘The man’ is therefore the ultimate target of attack, but he is surrounded by people who will give their lives to protect him, and often do. Most chess endgames when few pieces remain, are characterized by the king suddenly becoming emboldened, partly because with fewer enemies around it is relatively safe to come out ‘into the street’, but also because there are fewer allies left to do his hustling for him.”
“The realization that life-and-death chances are not fairly distributed is what makes the chess scene from The Wire so poignant.”
D’Angelo (center), explaining chess to Wallace (left) and Bodie (right), triangulated in a
way as to distinguish a hierarchy within the Barksdale crew
“As the rules of the game are described by D’Angelo, Wallace and Bodie can see their own lives in the game’s metaphors, giving rise to an open question of who or what exactly they are living in service of, and why.”
“Bodie, himself a pawn in the drug wars, points to the pawns, and asks about ‘them little baldheaded bitches’. D’Angelo explains that they are like soldiers and shows how they move, saying they are out on the ‘front lines’. Bodie gets excited by the possibility of pawns getting promoted, about becoming ‘top dog’ if he can ‘get to the end’. D’Angelo is quick to disabuse him of the probability of that happening, implying that they often get ‘capped’ (shot) quickly.”
‘The queen ain’t no bitch. She got all the moves.’
“Bodie shoots back that this may not happen if they are ‘smart-ass pawns’, which he himself later proves to be, surviving and rising through the ranks until series four. Wallace, on the other hand, proved as vulnerable as most pawns do, and died a few episodes later when he was just sixteen after trying to leave the drug scene. Bodie, Wallace’s friend, was also his assassin.”
“The writers loop back to this scene in series four when Bodie is speaking with Detective McNulty and considering his next move. Bodie is resolute about not being a snitch and conveys that he has done everything he was told to do by his bosses since he was thirteen, including killing his friend Wallace. McNulty know the context and has clearly grown to admire Bodie, calling him ‘a soldier’, as D’Angelo called the pawns earlier. At that moment, after years of imagining he might somehow escape or transform his fate, Bodie sees the truth of being a pawn more clearly, and realizes he is still ‘one of them little bitches on the chessboard.’ McNulty clarifies: ‘Pawns.'”
“In an early chess manual published around the middle of the sixtenenth century, Francois-Andre Philidor
describes pawns as ‘the soul of chess’, and this line is widely quoted by chess teachers and commentators because we know and feel its truth. Pawns are not the most powerful pieces, and they are mostly at the mercy of events, but they have a certain amount of hustle and they both set the scene and shape the narrative.
What occurred to me while watching The Wire is that most of us are pawns to a greater or lesser extent. We have our moments of power, fame and glory, but we are always potentially alone and vulnerable to forces beyond our control. We are the soul of the game of life, and our lives are precious not in spite of our fragility, but because of it.”